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Paint what you See? Bahahaha!

South Beach, Shannon Borg

I went to paint at my favorite beach a while back, South Beach in American Camp/San Juan Islands National Historical Park – the most beautiful driftwood-strewn stretch of beach in the San Juan Islands.

What a shitshow!

Well, it’s always a shitshow – I’ve only painted outside about 5 times now, in the 3 years I’ve been painting. Hauling the stuff – getting the stuff – easel, box, paints, right sized paper, snacks, coffee, phone, iPad, gloves, scarf, sweaters, the list goes on.

It’s like I’m moving to the beach.

But it is also wondrous – relaxing, calming. I saw two people the whole time. I position myself on a bluff, and then figure out from the vast array of beauty spread before me – precisely which scene I will ruin! 

You laugh! I laugh. But we all know that when you first start making art, drawing, painting, etc. that you may feel like I do – that I would apologize to the beautiful scene in nature I am about to attempt to capture and kill.

They say, “Paint what you see” – “Painting teaches you to see.” I’ve been trying to get my head around that. Because whatever I paint has absolutely no relation to what I actually see

Let me explain.

Like you, when I go to the beach, or any natural place I love, I am captivated by how much there is to see. Here’s a selection:

I see a long stretch of grey-green beach spreading out to the bluish horizon. I see sparkling water in ever-shifting wavelets, dotted by black dots of birds. I see a million little twists & turns of branches and knots of trees in the piles of driftwood. I see back-lit and front-lit and side-lit logs, dark and bright against greenish sand carpeted with pebbles.

I see a tapestry of white and pale green, yellow, orange, black lichen filligreed over every boulder’s surface, like aerial views of little cities with fields and forests. I see clumps of black seaweed, slumped on the sand, with twists of kelp stipe in ocher, green, gold, yellow, peach, covered in sandfleas when you step near, and when you hold them up to the light they glow like a unicorn’s tail.

I see a road of pebebles in a spectrum of color from pale peach to blood red to pale jade and every blue-grey imaginable. WAY more than 50 shades.

Stones from pea-sized to boulder, smooth as a baby’s skin or crusted granite covered in lichen as old as the last ice-age. Pebbles and boules streaked with white quartzite in the shapes of little letters and landscapes – I’m collecting the alphabet.

I see foam waves in a never-ending play with light – how a wave curls at the last moment and catches the sun behind it, including the curl with the glow of pale jadite.

I see boulders crashed by waves that have, over the millenia, been worn and softened into the form of the water itself, so you can’t tell the difference between the rock and the water, light catching both.

On the underside of boulders, I see colonies of gooseneck barnacles, their neat little beaks pointing skyward. They cluster in colonies, tiny condos all delicately painted in white and rose, with black trim. If you watch when the tide is out, a little beak with open slightly, reaching out its frilly tongue for some tiny snack. 


I see the sun setting – it takes a few hours for the gnomons of driftwood to cast longer and longer shadows until the light spectrum is at its lowest angle and longest wave of electromagnetic frequency and we see orange and red spread out like a drive-in movie across the pale screen of driftwood huts built by patient parents and squirrely kids.

So when they say: Paint what you see – what do I do?? I have to choose – attempt the little interesting patterns, the larger scene – everything is a decision – all with pretty hilarious outcomes.

I set up my easel and decide on a motif. I hold up my little frame to frame the scene. I mix a few colors like my teacher taught me. I poke a shape here and there onto the canvas. And I laugh.

I laugh because I know that when I go to the beach and paint, nothing. NOTHING, not the color, the shape, the value – has any relation whatever to the scene or objects I actually see.

Maybe I take things too literally. In fact I know I do. 

But what I THINK they are trying to say is:

Simplify DRASTICALLY what you see – in other words, DON’t see it. Paint the SIMPLEST form of the big shapes of light and dark or some color and shape kind of close to what you see. Paint a picture of what you see.

I think the goal is to actually shut out 99 percent of what you ACTUALLY see, and generalize it – see COMPLETELY differently.

INTERPRET what you see into a new language.

Take color as another example:

I see dark black shadows, a subtle gradation from cool blue to warm peachy orange, shot through with wood grain and knots, etc.
I take that, simplify it, transform it by my imagination and physical limitations into a SYMBOL of what I see.

SYMBOL: A symbol, from Greek, symbolon, meaning  sym – together and bol – to throw over or beyond – to throw together. A symbolon was a coin, shard or ticket used in Greek law. The symbolon was broken in two, like Laura Palmer’s heart necklace in Twin Peaks. Each person kept half to represent the agreement or hospitality of past meeting. When they met again, they had the symbolon that fit together to prove their connection.

DIABOL: Diaboloical – dia – two/apart/rift – in Latin Law, this meant “the position kept in court by someone who doubted the claim made by the other party” – hence, diabolical, devil.

So when I translate or interpret my scene on my canvas, I am bringing together two (or many) things, creating a symbol of the connection between me and the beach scene.

You can see where in my mind it is diabolical – a cruel joke that the Devil plays on me – getting me out there to paint something beautiful and it turning into a crazy painting that looks nothing like I wanted it to!

But here is where it gets interesting!

Say the word “Love” is a symbol for a whole range of complex sensations and emotions. In painting, drawing, in color theory, we have a symbolic language that we get to not only USE, but MAKE UP as we go from what we learn, what we see, our imagination, etc. into something new.

So we don’t “paint what we see.”

We paint what we choose to simplify, interpret, run through our physical limitations, our imaginative language and metaphor factory. What ends up on the canvas is a version of this. A Symbol, a Sign, an Icon, an Index of the Referent.

Like a child, I am learning a new language. It starts with this: black, white, gray. Red, green, orange, blue. It reminds me of a song we little Mormon kids learned – Our Primary Colors:

Our Primary Colors are 1, 2, 3. Red, yellow and blue.
Each has a message for you and me; each has a symbol, too
Red is for courage to do what is right. 
Yellow for service from morning till night.
Blue is for truth in our thought and our deed.
We will be happy if this is our creed.

Our Primary Colors, LDS Songbook

What they don’t tell you, and what I didn’t realize until I got older was that the simplicity of symbols gets complicated by what we see in the world – colors mix, primaries become complementaries, tertiaries, many shades of gray and light enter our lives. This is the beauty of it, too.

Color is a language that we use to interpret or capture what we see. Now that I am coming to learn that, I am a lot less frustrated that what I paint isn’t “What I see”.

Now I get to let the language of color grow in me, and the conversation between me and the landscape, my teachers, my paint, my artistic ancestors, develop as any conversation would – naturally and with many shifts. Bold strikes, mistakes, guffaws, gaffes, Freudian slips, bloopers, Spoonerisms, corrigendums, malapropisms and also insights, beauty and even poetry.

It is a journey through the dark threshold of self-discovery!

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The Today Candle

Today Candle Shannon Borg


At one of the many turning points in my life, a generous friend gave me a beautiful candle.

Girls love candles.

It was a stout, cream-colored, 4-inch tower in a pretty smoky-gold crackled-glass holder. The kind I would never, at the time,  spend money on for myself.

And it changed my life.

Today Candle Shannon Borg

Let me revise that … I changed my life. The candle was just – I was just – we were just – in the right place at the right time together.

With all I was going through – a lost marriage, a breakup, struggles with finances and habits, a new job, and the prospect of building a house through a low-income program that would mean working 7-days-a-week for a full year between job and construction, I knew the concept of living in the moment was what I needed to survive. Literally.  

I don’t know what happened, but the candle sparked something in me. (No pun intended!)

Inspirational Objects, oysters
Do you have an Inspirational Object
in your life?

Up to that point, I had been trying (pretty darned unsuccessfully) to meditate, to even BREATHE, to walk the beaches to calm myself, to find some inner peace I’ve heard so much about from the numerous books, websites, people and ideas I was trying to surround myself with.

It wasn’t really working.

Then I received the gift of a candle.

I wanted to look at it every day. My friend had such a calmness about her, that I felt it was infused with her friendship and love.

So I decided to make it a part of my daily ritual. To actually try to create a daily ritual.

Tentatively at first. I lit the candle and sat in front of it for a few minutes in the morning with my coffee, silent and breathing.

But one day led to three and seven, and even with stops and starts, I found that a daily ritual of lighting a candle, of breathing, of taking a few minutes to calm my mind, began to change my internal world.

“A schedule defends against chaos and whim.
It is a net for catching days.”
–Annie Dillard

That one candle was substantially larger than all the tea lights I had grouped around it on the little shrine I began to build. Pebble by shell by Buddha figurine. So I made a circle around it.

Buddha Shrine, Shannon Borg

Three small candles for “yesterdays”. I’d light them and say: Thank you, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. I survived you.

Three small candles for “tomorrows” – Thank you, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Get me through this thing.

“What used to be a hunch gradually becomes
a working part of the mind.”

And then I’d light the BIG candle, the one I knew I needed to focus on, right here, right now, standing at the head of the circle. The chairman of the board, as it were.

The “Today” candle. This ritual seems so simple, but for me, this simple act led to a cascading effect – of helping me focus daily on a process of finding peace – and eventually focus and productivity in my life. And art.

South Beach, San Juan Island, Charcoal 7x10, Shannon Borg
South Beach, San Juan Island, charcoal on paper

The Today Candle led me to my art – which literally would never have happened if I hadn’t started setting some time aside to sit quietly and listen to myself and slowly figure out what I really wanted.

Do you have something in your life like the Today Candle? Something, that when you look back, you realize it was a turning point?


Thank you,

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Drawing stone with stone

South Beach, San Juan Island, Charcoal 7x10, Shannon Borg

When I visit South Beach on San Juan Island, I am amazed by the geological diversity on this edge of land. Colors of stone from white to green to pink, brown and black. Textures from soft and round as if the stone bubbled up from the sea and was frozen in time, to sharp and broken boulders, cracked apart and brought here by ice.

As with any artwork, questions must be answered before proceeding. Which point of view do I take? What do I include or edit out? What tools do I use? I try to keep it simple, looking for lines that connect and contrasts that are interesting to me. Charcoal, another mineral, is so fascinating – I used to hate how it got my fingers black and ended up on my clothing, how awkward and dark it was. But like many things, of course, I didn’t understand it. Now, I am slowly coming to love how it can be as diverse as these formations, from hard to velvety, from chunk to powder.

My psyche is always overwhelmed by the beauty and opportunity I have to draw and paint this place. I could be here every day for the rest of my life and never capture even a little of what goes on here – in glacial time, or human time.

Find my art for sale at

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Drawing my Grandmother’s Hat

My illustration teacher, Edie Everette, assigned us to draw an article of clothing and write a comment next to it.

Drawing clothing is so intimate and fascinating. Clothes are the closest thing to your body, taking the shape of YOU, showing your ever-shifting personality and preferences to the world.

Inheriting clothing, for me, gives me the feeling of the person still being at my side – closer, even, in my head and embracing my body. My grandmother lived with us from when I was in 3rd grade to when I went off to college. She died the autumn of my freshman year, on Halloween.

When you draw clothing, it is an exercise in memory. I felt her presence, accompanying her to dinner parties or sleigh rides in my mind as I drew.

Try this! Draw a piece of clothing and write a story or statement next to it. This exercise was transformative for me!

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Best Spring Recipes

Chefs on the Farm, Shannon Borg, Lora Lea Misterly, Karen Jurgenson, Phots by Harley Soltes

A friend invited me to an email recipe exchange, and I realized – I don’t cook as much as I used to. I eat very simply these days.

Stuck at home, the comfort of comfort food is all the more comforting.

But I was looking for a recipe to share, and thought – now we all have a little more time on our hands (although is life as busy for you as it is for me … still?), I am choosing to slow down and enjoy the solitary life by cooking a little more. And cooking with fresh food from the garden, or from a local farm stand feels healthiest. Most farm stands around here are on the honor system – you can take your food and leave a check or cash.

I came across some favorite recipes from my book, Chefs on the Farm, one of which is such a great springtime brunch dish, I thought I’d share it – I hope you like it!

Chefs on the Farm, Shannon Borg, Lora Lea Misterly, Karen Jurgenson, Phots by Harley Soltes
Photo by Harley Soltes

Chef Karen Jurgensen can poach eggs perfectly – and in this delicious spring brunch recipe it is all about the colorful hash of luscious pork belly, deep red baby beets (or sunny yellow beets, or both!) and whatever other springtime veggies & herbs you have access to – bright green chives & snap peas, fresh thyme.

Baby Beet Hash, Pork Belly & Poached Eggs

(Yum!) This recipe is from:

Chefs on the Farm: Recipes & Inspiration from the Quillisascut Farm School of the Domestic Arts

(Click on the image below to order my book on Amazon!)

Happy Springtime Cooking!

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Who are Your Artistic Ancestors?

Picnic / Aftermath, Shannon Borg

If you were to name your artistic grandmother or grandfather, who would that be?

Many people have an artistic lineage that you work in response to. For instance, for my friend Teresa Smith, it is Emily Carr and the Group of Seven, the Canadian painters of the early and mid-20th Century that had a spiritual and symbolic connection to the landscape they painted. She identifies with their spiritual approach to color, and works with the landscape to bring out these symbolic and underlying themes of light, transcendence and internal essence.

Rock on Water, Teresa Smith
Rock on Water, Teresa Smith
Tree in Autumn, Emily Carr
Tree in Autumn, Emily Carr

For me, I have a LOT of artists I’m always looking at, but a few I really identify with, not just the way they paint, but the way they lived.

One of those painters that is incredibly important to me is Morris Graves (August 28, 1910 – May 5, 2001), one of the “Northwest Mystic” painters in a group of friends and creative colleagues dubbed the Northwest School, that included Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson and Kenneth Callahan, and others.

When I approached a recent assignment in the Trowbridge Atelier where I’m studying in Georgetown at Gage Academy of Art – to paint a “cornucopia,” I immediately thought of Graves’ “Summer Still Life” with its dark colors and flat perspective, amazing composition and mysterious symbology.

Picnic / Aftermath, Shannon Borg
Picnic / Aftermath, Shannon Borg
Summer Still Life, Morris Graves
Summer Still Life, Morris Graves

I created a cornucopia of my own, also set in nature, like Graves does, but in this case, located at my favorite beach, South Beach in American Camp, National Historical Park, San Juan Island. Since I was in Seattle at art school, I relied on a still-life set-up I created in my apartment, and then placed it in relation to my many photos and memory of South Beach.

my cornucopia setup in my apartment
photocollage of my idea
charcoal drawing of my idea

Then I created two canvases – one a daytime scene, and one a nighttime scene. I love how Graves’ scene is kind of in the middle – you can’t tell whether it is day or night. So I made both – and it was fascinating to work with the more abstracted shapes and try to create a sense of moonlight and how that light is different than sunlight. I took pictures of my setup at all times of day and night.

Then I flipped the image, so day and night would be mirror images of each other – kind of Alice in Wonderland meets Morris Graves.

I’ve started the “day” side of the painting
the setup for the “night” side
I flipped the night side

Having an image, an artist, a friend like Morris Graves to be by my side through this process was very comforting – like I have with me a kind teacher gently nudging me this direction or that. My Atelier teacher and mentor, Kimberly Trowbridge, is that person for me IRL – but as artists, we also need our artistic ancestors with us at all times, so we can have that dialogue with them, too.

What artists – living or gone – are you having an artistic dialogue with in your work?

Summer Still Life, Morris Graves
Picnic / Aftermath, Shannon Borg

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The Green Vine: A Guide to Sustainable Wines

Green Vine Wine Book

The Green Vine offers a jumping-on point
for wine lovers interested in eco-friendly drinking.

Wine Spectator

Green Vine Wine Book

Most people don’t think about wine too much; they just drink and enjoy! Yet more and more people are thinking about where their food comes from—and wine is food, too. At root, it’s an agricultural product that faces many of the same industrial, environmental, and economic issues as that sustainably-raised steak or fresh home-grown salad on your plate.

With The Green Vine, you have a charming and accessible guide to “green” wines and how you can drink smarter. From deciphering labels to examining cork materials to clarifying the various levels of organic and biodynamic certification, wine writer Shannon Borg demystifies eco-friendly wines. She provides a practical overview of West Coast vineyards and wineries that use both traditional and modern sustainable practices.

Here, you’ll find detailed information on:

  • 200+ green vineyards and wineries in Northern California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Idaho
  • Certified Organic, Salmon-Safe, LIVE-certified, Sulfite-Free, Biodynamic—what do all these certifications mean?
  • Profiled winemakers and growers who are leading the green wine movement
  • Recommended wines to try
  • Growing techniques, soil health, and water resources
  • Winemaking methods, additives, and byproducts
  • Packaging materials and their impacts

Winemakers are starting to take environmental stewardship seriously, changing how they grow grapes and make wine. With The Green Vine in hand, you can raise a glass of Cabernet or Chardonnay in support!

Get your copy of The Green Vine! 

Follow The Green Vine on Facebook

About the Author: Shannon Borg is a writer, editor, poet, and wine educator. She lives in Friday Harbor, Washington, where she writes about wine for various publications. She has published a book of poems, Corset (Cherry Grove), and a cookbook, Chefs on the Farm: Inspired Lessons and Recipes from the Quillisascut Farm School of the Domestic Arts (Mountaineers Books). Shannon holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Washington and a PhD in poetry and literature from the University of Houston, and has taught writing at the University of Houston, Seattle Art Institute, the Richard Hugo House, and Spokane Community College. She also holds certificates from the International Sommelier Guild (Wine Fundamentals I & II).

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Color at the Beach

We think of the beach as being composed of grey/brown sand, white shells, blue water. But every beach has its colors. Where I live, on San Juan Island, I am continually amazed at the intensity of the colors I find even on a grey day. Today at South Beach it was misty and overcast, but the stormy weather had washed up all sorts of seaweed, from iridescent pink to olive-green. Crab shells, driftwood, eelgrass, rocks. An endless array of the colors in these fascinating organic forms!

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16 Journeys

16 Journeys, acrylic on paper, mounted on panel, 44x56, Shannon Borg
16 Journeys, acrylic on paper, mounted on panel, 44×56, Shannon Borg

For this large piece, first I crinkle up (yes, basically destroy) a sheet of worn, torn, old colored construction paper. Each paper is then painted in thin, dripped acrylic paint, letting the paint create its own landscape. I find connections between the random form the paint takes and the landscapes from the birthplaces of my 16 great-great-great grandparents, who came from Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, Wales and England.

These landscapes are a combination of imagined and real, from memory and dream. I love how the forms then work together as a group, as in our memories, visions are often overlapped and bumped up against each other.